Small note of fun this week. As part of my Masters program, I’ll be digging through a lot of archival materials, and one of the best parts of Columbia is their Oral History archives, which are not available online. Here’s a quote I pulled from Fritz Lang, that I think explains a lot of the nihilism in his noir films: “Today, I’m convinced that mythical fate doesn’t exist. That you never make fate for yourself.” I wish I had more time with it, because Lang also talks a lot of who slept with who stuff.
-Hollywood or Bust, 1956. Directed by Frank Tashlain. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Artists and Models, 1955. Directed by Frank Tashalin. 35mm projection at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-/Barry Lyndon/, 1975. Directed by Stanley Kubrick. DVD.
-New Guy, 2003. Directed by Bilge Ebiri, Streaming via Fandor.
What makes Jerry run? A whole lot of insanity it seems. Besides Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, I had never seen the very odd comedic styling of Jerry Lewis, but of course his place in cinematic history is well known, mainly as being despised by the United States but for some reason loved by the French (or at least that is how the myth goes). Well sorry America, France got this one right.
Lewis’s comedic humor is first insane, and then genius, and then something of insanely genius. His voice is grating to say the least, but there’s something so oddball about the way he uses his voice that you can’t help but laugh. Take for instance, a sequence from Artists and Models, as Lewis dreams up a comic book in his sleep, to the disdain of his roommate Dean Martin. What is funny isn’t what Lewis is saying, which comes off as a bunch of comic-inspired gibberish with weird names and weird stories; it’s instead the inflections in his voice, the random unexpected outburst, and the pure absurdity that comes through his (often-crossed) eyes. No wonder Lewis appealed to the French—unlike the fast-talking humor of the screwball comedies, Lewis’s humor was never based on the actual words, just his interpretation of them.
This comes even further out when you expand it to his physical body, which is almost impossible to explain. Lewis seemed to be missing particular joints in his body that allowed him to move in any direction he wanted. The running joke in Hollywood or Bust about Lewis’s lucky feeling is built around his ability to literally contort his body to inhuman porportions. He had a truly cartoonish personality—the sequence in which he drags himself up and down the stairs in Artists turns a simple task into something out of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s clear why director Frank Tashlain and Lewis were perfect for each other—Tashalin got his start in Looney Tunes, and Lewis was one of them, except not animated (Tashlain also provides Artists and Models with the most bizarre Hitchcock parody ever that had me laughing my ass off).
You can understand by the end of their career, Dean Martin wanted to get away from Lewis. His love ballads in both films are drags compared to the manic styling of Lewis (Shirley MacLaine’s huge number in Artists and Models might top them all for also its sheer absurdity). Martin can deliver a funny line, but he’s clearly not a physical comedian (Martin however was a great dramatic actor, as Rio Bravo would show). But in the context of Lewis, Martin is a perfect straight man, and the two truly knew how to play off each other. Or at least Lewis knew how to make Martin the butt of the joke. He may have been too much inside his own insane head space to even notice.